Audio length: 34:33 minutes
Transcript published: September 24, 2011
Fr. Alexander Atty continues his talk on the Good and Faithful Priest, a presentation given at the 2009 Lenten Retreat at St. Vladimir's.
Let me tell you what St. John Climacus and Symeon the New Theologian say about the profile of what a priest should be. They say he should be a doctor. Not an MD, not a PhD, but a doctor of the soul, because the sinner is a sick person, and sinfulness is a disease. How many gospels do we need to be read to us Sunday after Sunday? And they repeat so often. If you didn’t miss church, you would hear some of the same gospels every year as a part of the cycle. There’s always those gospels about paralysis, diseases, and that’s what we are: we’re sick people.
The spiritual father is the one who applies medicine for the illness. All too often, we look at our priest. We’ll go to confession: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” Oh. Wrong church. “Bless me, Father, for I haven’t sinned” is in our church. People come, and they don’t want to hear the fact that they’re to receive medicine at their confession. I think that’s why they don’t like confession. Confession, to me, is pure catharsis. I go to a monk for confession, and when I tell people I could be there for hours, they wonder why. What did I do? It’s not what I did. It’s what I’m not doing.
One of the greatest sins that we don’t confess is the sin of omission, where we don’t come to the priest and say the things that we should have done. We should have regret for what we could have done but didn’t do. So the spiritual father is the one who applies that medicine for our illnesses.
And priests have to have spiritual fathers also. That’s really a disturbing trend of our modern-day priesthood, is [that] a lot of our own clergy don’t even go to confession. And what’s good for us is good for you, and what’s good for you is good for us, because we’re all part of that royal priesthood.
Here’s another thing that John Climacus says: “Penances which the spiritual father imposes are a healing remedy, not a punishment. If a priest loves his flock, he’s going to tell them the truth. You know, the hardest thing for me to do was to tell people they couldn’t take the sacraments. It took me a long time to do that, too. Now it doesn’t take me a long time, because earlier on… And there again is the problem that we face as priests in this country: we live in a democracy, so any time a priest says something to you like, “You’re not allowed to take communion for six months,” they go to the Greek church, or they go to the Russian church, or they go to some other church, instead of being humbled by it and taking the advice of the priest, his love. First of all, that persona… And a lot of people think I’m a dictator. That’s not true. I’m very firm and committed in what I do, but I like to think that I’m pretty much of a loving, compassionate kind of guy, because I do love my flock. And people are smart enough to know when you love money and not the flock, or love power and not the flock. I never asked for a raise in 30 years. Not going to, either. [If] they didn’t get the hint by now ... you know, what are you going to do?
As a doctor, the priest really has to encourage people to confess their sins, to spit out that poison that is within us. The Gospels talk about sin as paralysis. What does poison do to us? Paralyzes our internal organs, and sometimes until we die. It’s the same thing, the same thing. The priest is a counselor, and not like a general psychologist. Americans are the worst people in the world for this. More people go to therapists in this nation than any other nation in the world combined. Why don’t you just go to your priest? They’d rather pay for something and still not get healed.
And as a counselor—I hate the word “counselor”; it’s sort of a secular word, but it’s the only one I could think of at the time I was writing this—he heals by his words. If you really have a relationship with your priest—as we all should—he talks to you, he gives you the honest advice. I never ask a person what they think, because I don’t really want to know what they think. What I want to know is what’s in their heart, because that’s the only way you can cure someone.
A priest is an intercessor. He heals with his prayers. Now, imagine this: everything we do in this life requires a lot of time. But imagine if your church didn’t pray every day. Who’s getting prayed for? Every day we have services at St. Michael’s. I have a list of people who are in the hospital, or someone has some kind of trauma, or someone just died. They’re prayed for every day. In fact, in my parish, when someone dies, for 40 days, their name is mentioned at every service, and on the fortieth day, not the closest Sunday, they come back to the temple for the 40-day memorial. These are all the rites and rituals, the rites of the Church that was the original blueprint which made priests shepherds. Like I said earlier, I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but when the Church teaches one thing, then we should do it. And that’s what makes the Church what it’s supposed to be.
The priest is a mediator. He reconciles his children to God. One of the main functions as a priest is to bring people to God, to bring God to their home, to their workplace, to their personal life. And when we do that… There’s two types of converts in the Church. I have my favorites, okay? Nothing makes me happier [than] when someone who was given the blessing to be born into the Orthodox Church returns. That’s a blessing. A lot of times our people left the Church, I think sometimes, for the right reason. We want to be critical of ourselves. Like I said earlier, I didn’t hear English until I was 21. That was sort of annoying. That chased a lot of people away. But the priest is a mediator. By his life, by his words, he can reconcile people back to God. That’s a primary function of his priesthood, his pastorate.
The priest is a sponsor. He takes responsibility for his children and provides security. I feel like every person who walks in my church—I don’t care what walk of life they came from: rich or poor, black or white—I feel like one of my main responsibilities with them is to protect them, to nourish them, to cultivate them. As a sponsor, you’re like their godparent. We call sponsors “godparents.” We interchange those words. But as a sponsor or godparents… The priest is like a godparent to the people who go there, who belong there. And this is where I feel like where we have to go the extra mile. We actually have to go the extra mile every time, [at] every opportunity, because our job—if you like that word, “job”... Jobs mean to me that we should have unions. I think we need a priests’ union. I want to be the head of the priests’ union. I want the high salary he gets, too. Just kidding.
Our job is to make sure that every soul that comes into the church… We have to be responsible for them. Sometimes we have people in parishes that think that there is a hierarchical order of church membership. You ever hear of this? People have told me, “My grandfather founded this church,” and I’m thinking, “So? What does that have to do with anything?” Or: “We’ve been here longer than [they].” One time I had a… It was an odd situation. Surprisingly, it was one of those weird events in the life of a priest. I got a call Holy Saturday morning, about 8:00 in the morning. I was on my way, just ready to leave for Liturgy, and this lady called me and told me her mother just died. So I went to the house, and it was about 20 miles from the parish. The next thing you know, I get another call, and they said, “This is So-and-so.” It’s the same street! Two houses down! She died. And I said, “Well, I’ll be over as soon as I can, because I’m at So-and-so’s house, and she just died,” and she goes: “My mother was a member longer than [she was].” Well, I thought, “What does that have to do with it?” That element sometimes gets in the way of your priesthood, and they want to think that they have [an] order there.
Let me give you an idea [of] what I think the trinity of the good pastor is. I’d like to put it like a big triangle or a three-legged stool: what the good pastor is really about. And I’m not telling you I’m on that or in that stool or triangle.
Is there a time for questions and answers on this, too, Father [Chad]? ... Okay. There’ll be plenty of questions, but there will be no answers…
The trinity of the good pastor. It begins with this: first and foremost—and I’m a real hard kind of guy on this—the church has to be open constantly. Constantly. The blueprint for this has always been why the Church has survived overseas, because they had church all the time. I’ve been to Greece 15 times. I’ve been to the old country. I’ve been to Jerusalem. I’ve been to Moscow, Serbia. Even under Communism, the Russian Church still managed to have Liturgies on a daily basis. And why is that? Doesn’t that tell us something? We get all of our food from our liturgical life.
And I’m going to tell you how hard it is to do prayer services seven days a week on very little help. St. Michael’s has over 500 liturgical services a year, so when I have people tell me, “Oh, I can’t come to church, Father; I work on Sunday,” I said, “What about the other six days?” [If] someone really wants to go to church, they can there, and I feel strongly why I believe in that liturgical prayer life of beginning my day with Matins or Liturgy. When we have Liturgy, we start Matins at 5:45 in the morning. We’ve never been empty. I’ve never been by myself. In fact, just the contrary. I get scared sometimes when I see a lot of people there at six or seven o’clock in the morning. I almost wonder what they’re doing there… I know why they’re there, but.
I understand the one fact about that, what liturgical life does, and [the] language of the people being English, and church services that are well done. That’s the educator. Not me. You go to church in the morning, you hear the psalms. You hear the hymns to the Virgin. You have [an] apostolic reading; you have a Gospel. You learn the Lenten prayer of St. Ephrem the Syriac. I had a guy tell me one time, “I never heard of that prayer.” Well, naturally. You only come to church on Sundays. If you came any time during the week, you would hear that prayer.
And all those things are great teachers, so if the pastor… That’s why the word “faithful” has to be in this topic, because it takes [your being] faithful, to be a good pastor. You can’t listen to what the world says. You have to feed the sheep, and the sheep need [to be] fed seven days a week. Just try to argue with Baptists on infant baptism. It’s very easy to argue with them… [At laughter:] Someone appreciates me. But it is. It’s very easy to argue with them, because: Do you wait until your kid can think before he eats? Does your kid make up his mind that he wants [to be] inoculated, he needs his shots and all that stuff that my wife says I never did? No. And it’s the same way with the Church.
This’ll be lecture number two, about the good parishioner, so I’m not going to go deeply into this, but it’s the same thing about the Church. If you take the responsibility of having someone baptized, then you take the responsibility of taking that seriously, and that’s why in the pastorate, if these services aren’t here, how do we learn?
And, by the way, it isn’t easy. I’m out of town right now. I have two priests in my parish that are above 70 years of age who substitute for me when I’m gone. When I’m there, I’m there. Even when they come, I’m there. Because it’s for me. How do I change as a priest? Every day I realize my faults. I know I have to make amends and change. Sometimes I handle people poorly. And I’m one of the few priests that I know—that my spiritual father made me do this—as justifiable as I thought I was for reaming someone up and down, I went back to the pulpit the next Sunday and told the whole parish I was sorry, because he made me. And that was liberation day for my pastorate, because that changed me as a person. I’m no better than anybody who walks in my parish.
A priest has to pray. If he doesn’t have a prayer life, then you could tell. I could talk about the world. That’s another thing that St. John Chrysostom said about the priest: a priest better know the enemy (which is the world). I could talk about the world. I live in Kentucky. I have to know about horse racing, [about] which I don’t know anything. I know they’re beautiful animals, but that’s about it. I know my sports. I could talk about sports better than they could, but as the priest, you could always tell a priest—and I’m not judging anybody—but I really get frustrated with clergy when all they talk about is 401(k)s and what kind of car they’re driving, where they live… That’s only in the Antiochian Church, by the way. We’re in that upper echelon salary-wise. That’s the rumor I’ve heard for years. I’m just waiting for my train to come in, or my ship to come in! I hear all that talk when we go to conferences and conventions, and—not that I’m better—I don’t want to hear it, so it’s better that I just walk out of there, go run five miles.
Prayer life. And by the way, I do run a lot. I run three to four miles a day, because I used to be a really big guy at one time. And while I run, I pray. I do my sermons while… I give my best sermons running. A guy from my parish one time saw me running down the road, and he says, “Boy, you looked intense running down the road,” and I said, “Well, I was in the middle of my sermon!” I leave the best sermons on the road.
Liturgical—that’s the first part [of] the trinity of the good pastor: liturgical prayer life, if you’re married. No priest could be a priest without liturgics and prayer life. I’m sure I’m making a lot of friends with the clergy today. They’re just lucky I’m not their bishop! I wear my bishop out. He’s a good man, too.
The second leg of that trinity: priest as preacher and teacher. This is really hard for me, because I don’t see myself as a preacher. I always tell people I give halftime talks. I grew up playing football and grew up in a football family. My dad was assistant coach at Penn State. My dad played pro football, so naturally, all of our discipline at our home was like halftime. Come home and there would be the chalkboard. Here’s your instructions.
But I’d like to say I give halftime talks, because it’s sort of halftime when you do this. It’s right after the Gospel, and people need a little energy to finish the Liturgy. And I don’t really like to say I’m a preacher. I’m not. Preachers are on television. They make a lot of money; they tell a lot of lies. If you really preach the Gospel, church would be empty, in all honesty. We sort of want to be told how good we are without effort. I can’t do that. I always seek forgiveness for that, too, because I just can’t do that. I don’t know if any of us are good, and I’m not saying you’re bad, but when we preach, I think we’ve got to preach the Gospel, with compassion, with love. I don’t scream and yell—unless those people in the back row say differently. I have three of my parishioners here that are seminarians. I don’t think I preach or yell unless the PA system’s acting up.
I would like to think that I have to tell the truth. As a preacher or proclaimer of the Gospel, in all honesty, we don’t have a lot of time to preach. The average person has a 10- to 12-minute span, unless you’re my kids, and they have a three-minute span. I think my wife has a 30-second span when I start talking. But I’m realistic about it. I’d like to give a message in that 12 minutes that reflects 100% what the Gospel means and what it means for you and [me]. And I think that’s important.
Teaching. I’m a real firm believer that the Church has to constantly, constantly teach. And one of the failures of the American Church, Orthodox Church, is that we have this ridiculous program called “Sunday school.” We think when our kids get out of Sunday school that that’s the end of their education, and that’s exactly how most people view our education. It’s over at Sunday school. I can’t go that route. I have a church school program in my parish. I’d like to think it’s doing its job. I don’t think it is. I don’t think any of them do. And that’s why the Church has to constantly teach. We teach through our Liturgies, our services, the Gospels, classes, and we can’t get enough of this.
We have three adult programs at St. Michael’s a week, and guess what: the masses aren’t there. Anything we do with the church down there, except for Sunday… We have a church that holds 800 people. On any given Sunday, we might have 650, 750 for Liturgy. The weekday services? The 30s, the 40s, the 50s. The Bible studies? The 10s, the 20s, and the 30s. The window of opportunity there shrinks drastically, and it was very difficult to turn a once-a-week parish into a seven-day-a-week parish.
I still have a generation of people who don’t [ascribe] to the Sherman-coming-to-Atlanta philosophy. They just don’t… They will fight me until either I die or they die, whatever comes first. They’re a shrinking minority right now, though, which is even more tragic from my viewpoint, because I would like to convert them to Christ before they die. So that bothers my conscience tremendously, that they still haven’t tasted of the Bread that came down from heaven.
The pastor has to be a Christian example of good works. What is the definition of “good works”? It always bothers me. And here’s my philosophy on a priest doing good works. I think every priest, when they do good works, should be anonymous. I don’t ever want people to say I’m a good guy, because my spiritual father, one time he asked me if I knew some of the priests in this country. He was a monk on Mount Athos, but his ethnic heritage was the same as mine: he was Lebanese. He was sort of exiled out of the Patriarchate of Antioch. That’s why I liked him. I liked him because he made a stand, and stuck to it.
I think the one necessary characteristic of a priest, a good priest, is one that he is a man. That’s not the gender, the male gender, but not afraid to make a decision. They don’t stand their and wring their—I can’t deal with people who wring their hands. Can’t deal with wishy-washy people. Make the decision and live by it. I made a lot of decisions and lived by them. Good or bad, I lived by them. And that’s what he taught me. When I find someone who walked the walk, [not just] sermonized me: he walked the walk…
He had a large parish outside of Beirut, and he refused to give a Maronite—which is an Eastern sort of hybrid Catholic… I like the word “hybrid” because I own one—so they were part this and part that, and not full anything. He refused to give this Maronite woman the Eucharist, and her husband was a very wealthy guy. That terrible sin. He got a call from the Patriarchate, saying, “You give Mrs. So-and-so Communion the next time she comes there.” Well, he didn’t, and after Liturgy, he walks outside. A car pulled up, and these two thugs got out, and they beat him up. He moved to Greece [the] next week.
He became the priest of the Lebanese immigrant community in Salonika. He taught at the theological school there. He had a PhD. But when I met him, he was a monk. I was on my first trip to Mt. Athos. I heard of him. You know, you always hear of the good guys. And I was on my first trip to Mt. Athos. I had 60 days to kill before I came home and got married. I bought a 100-day ticket, so I had to stay 100 days, but I spent 30-40 days in Lebanon, Jerusalem, Serbia, Greece, but the last 60 days I stayed in Mt. Athos because [first] I wanted to see the life there, and secondly I didn’t have any money and it was free to stay there.
I learned a tremendous amount. I was lost when I found him. They give you these ridiculous maps that were probably done in Byzantine times, and the jungle overgrew and you couldn’t find where you were going, so I found this old house, little chapel and an old house in the middle of nowhere. I knocked on the door, because I knew somebody lived there. I saw evidence that there was fresh life there. So this monk comes out, and my Greek at that time was just pitiful. And he looked at me really funny, and I thought… Well, they all did anyway: they knew I was American; no matter how I smelled, I was American.
So he said, “Do you want a glass of water?” And he said it in Greek, and I understand the word “water,” so I said, “Yes.” He didn’t invite me in his house. He told me to sit at this table outside. He came out, and he asked me if I wanted watermelon, but he used the word, instead of the word for watermelon in Greek [which] is karpouzi, he used the word [bakikh], which is Arabic. And I looked at him really funny, and I’m not fluent in Arabic but I know a lot, even the curse words.
So he looked at me really funny. He says, “You’re Arab, aren’t you?” He spoke very little English at that point. I said, “Yes.” And he said, “I know where your grandparents are from. You look just like them, the people from that village.” And I thought, “Oh my God, he’s right.” I knew where my grandparents came from. So I asked him his name, and he told me, and I said, “Oh! You’re the guy I was told to find.” And from that point on, I had a relationship with him, a spiritual relationship.
He wouldn’t hear my confession the very first time I asked him, because, he said, “I only hear confessions of people who listen to me.” Now, could you imagine going to your priest and him telling you that? Now, you’re going to come to me to confession only if you’re going to listen to me. I would probably have the easiest confession line ever. Nobody would be there. So the next morning… I stayed with him; I stayed with him for a while. He turned me onto reading the writings of St. Isaac of Syria. He actually translated them from Greek into Arabic.
He was a giant among men over there, but he always was the one that instilled in me about the liturgical life, the prayer life, being the good shepherd. Great advice, but one of the things he always would say to me: “Do you know So-and-so in this country?” Sure, I know him. “What do you think of him?” Oh, I think he’s a good guy. He says, “I don’t really care if he’s a good guy. Is he a good priest?” And this is what people do to the shepherd. They judge us by our personalities, on what they want to hear, and not what they need to hear.
As laypeople, we need to understand that God gives us what we need to have, not what we want to have. And the real spiritual father, if you really don’t even like his looks, his voice, his personality, but he tells you the truth, that’s the guy you should love. That’s the priest you should love. And by the way, he’ll love you more. That’s the main ingredient.
You know how hard it is as a priest to love people who don’t like you? That was my challenge. It’s a big, big challenge! Because I came from that Western Pennsylvania mentality: if someone got in your way, you just hit him. That’s how I grew up. I haven’t hit anybody in the last ten years, though. So that’s the trinity of the pastor that I feel is necessary, and I would like to say that’s been my guide as a priest in my community.